Over the course of my life, I have often been told “the sad truth”. The sad truth usually consisted in rehearsing my errors and sins. It was often told dishonestly – the speakers held motives of their own distinct from improving my character. It was often told hypocritically – the speakers had little room to talk. I usually responded with defensiveness and disbelief. In my mind, I quoted King Lear: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” And I suspect that is a common human reaction.
But it is a mistake. Whatever real or imagined motives the speakers carry, whatever hypocrisies they demonstrate, the accuracy of their charges remains unaffected. If the sad truth they are telling is indeed true, we ignore it to our peril.
There are few things we resist with such tenacity as that which we do not want to admit.
When it comes to American church treatment of Palestine and Israel there is a sort of kind collusion at work among parties on all sides of the issue. It has a form of kindness; it is amiable; but it is neither good nor right.
To a degree, I understand why this should be so. It grows out of the existence of a wide array of subtly varied agendas – most of which would not be advanced by a policy of undiplomatic honesty. For many, other issues are far more important: if it does not closely touch our hearts, why bother to take it up? For all but a few diehards, the perennial unpleasantness that surrounds everything to do with the Middle East is a powerful disincentive from even thinking about the issues involved. The usual approach is to seek a quick, easy action that will enable us to feel good about ourselves and then move on to other topics.
But I have become convinced there is a deeper factor also at work here. If we take time to examine our record as it specifically concerns Israelis and Palestinians, we might see something about ourselves – about our actions and attitudes – that we don’t much want to know. It is one of those “sad truth” moments. We will look for the ulterior motives and hypocrisies of any who raise concerns so we never have to deal with the substance of those concerns.
I have not always believed this to be the case. For me, the PC(USA)’s 2004 divestment decision was pretty much a non-issue. I didn’t support it, but I confess I lacked enough information on the topic to have a particularly intense opinion. I viewed divestment as one in a series of political decisions taken by various General Assemblies that were out of step with the views of the members and elders of most Presbyterian churches. In my experience, those members and elders tended toward moderation; and in my experience, those members and elders did not have strong beliefs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This 2004 action struck me as a little bit extreme – even radicalized. But it remained just one of several bothersome decisions of that assembly.
It was only when I voiced this concern that things changed. Locally, I was told by fellow Presbyterian elders, “I don’t see how what Louisville says has anything to do with us.” In hindsight, I find it interesting that the vast majority of local elders I spoke with did not differentiate between Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville and a General Assembly composed of commissioners from every presbytery. At the time, I was struck by the obvious total disconnect between the national denomination and the local church.
Nationally, I was told, “Remember the Liberty …”, “You’re a biblical ignoramus …”, “Through its divestment action, the GA was speaking prophetically …”, “Divestment came because Israel has ignored our statements for almost sixty years …”, “We’re a connectional church …” [Huh?], and something about the “true-blue semites in Palestine.”
I found the reactions puzzling, confusing, and alarming.
National PC(USA) officials, meantime, were spinning the actual decision in ways that were not possible interpretations of its wording. The action itself was simple: to “initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” It did not (as was reported later by the Stated Clerk, the Moderator and others) “authorize exploration of a selective divestment …”; it was not directed at terrorism; it was not in any way limited to companies “whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli”; it did not focus solely on the occupation.
Why the spin? What was that intended to accomplish?
Something did not feel right about this whole thing.
It was at this point I began to take a closer look at the actual statements and actions of the PC(USA) related to Israel. [And, to tell the truth, I have often wished I had not done this.] I started by reading Presbyterian News Service stories going back until before 2000. I read the statements from the Washington Office. I read statements of national officials. I read the minutes of the prior six General Assemblies. I read the back issues of the publication of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. I explored the materials released by official PC(USA) partner organizations.
I took this approach because I accepted the argument that various news organizations might have misrepresented or mischaracterized PC(USA) actions. Critics of the organization might be giving the worst reading to events. Supporters of Israel had an agenda of their own. Pro-Palestinian activists might spin events in ways the PC(USA) did not itself intend or support. I wanted the rationales to be put in the best possible light.
I began with hope – maybe what I suspected was a fluke. Surely things could not be that bad.
But it was no good. I have to say, I have undertaken no other task that has filled me with such dreariness, such revulsion, such sadness, and such shame.
What I found in 2005 – and what the last seven years have only served to confirm, reinforce, and indeed worsen – was the presence of something unexpected, something very ugly, and something I am convinced has the potential to be very dangerous. And I knew then, as I know now – it is something I will oppose with my last breath.
Now I find myself in the unenviable position of telling the sad truth.
As an organization, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has an Israel problem. Other denominations and groups also have this problem, but the case in the PC(USA) is more extreme than most. Explain this hostility however you want, but the facts are clear enough.
For at least the last fifteen years, GA after GA, denominational officials, committees, offices have issued critical statements. Some of these were warranted; some were off-the-wall; some were calls to action; some were peculiar (even insupportable) historical assertions. In each instance, where facts have been disputed, the official PC(USA) has sided against Israel. Every interpretation of events the PC(USA) has chosen has reflected unfavorably upon Israel. The PC(USA) has demonstrated an extraordinary single-mindedness of focus. It is true, of course, that Presbyterians have criticized the actions of other nations. But when you consider the sheer number of targeted statements and actions, a pattern emerged. With the exception of the United States, Israel garners more negative PC(USA) attention than all other nations combined.
Excuse it, rationalize it, dismiss it, but you must admit, it is a peculiar phenomenon.
The spirit of criticism of Israel has prompted Presbyterians to quirky theological inconsistencies. For example, the worldwide Jewish community can be held in a special way to (Presbyterian interpretations of) the moral requirements of the Hebrew Bible, while that same community can be denied any of the biblical promises. Presbyterian luminaries have smugly asserted (alluding to an Edward Said quote, I believe), “God is not a real estate broker.” Yet those same Presbyterian luminaries frequently reference holy sites and the Christian presence in a holy land. Perhaps they meant to say, “God is a real estate broker who only serves Christians.”
Of greater concern, the Presbyterian hostility toward Israel lends itself to the propagation of classical, antisemitic themes. In the materials circulated by Presbyterians and their partners, one encounters the use of crucifixion imagery employed against Israel, Khazar arguments, claims that Jews control the US government, false accusations made directly against American Jewish organizations, the use of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as if it were legitimate history, the language of contempt.
Just this evening I was reminded of an inexplicable May 7, 2012 tweet by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Presented without comment or context it consisted in a link to an article written by Khalid Amayreh.
To be fair, the IPMN often refers readers to articles on the Middle East. Sometimes these are articles which disagree with the objectives of the IPMN. But in those cases, the IPMN usually indicates its disagreement. If an article contains something particularly offensive – and its agenda is one the IPMN opposes, the article is usually presented to show that agenda in the worst possible light. I object to none of this. But I am left to wonder what to make of an article whose thesis the IPMN has loudly supported. The IPMN has taken it as an article of faith that “Israeli persecution forces Christians to emigrate”.
The only problem? The article informs the reader:
But the special hatred (and contempt) of Christians by Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, goes deep in history and certainly precedes modern Zionism by numerous centuries.
Amayreh quotes Yisrael Shahak:
“The very name Jesus was for Jews a symbol of all that is abominable, and this popular tradition still persists. The Gospels are equally detested, and they are not allowed to be quoted, let alone taught, even in modern Israeli Jewish schools.”
Amayreh goes on to say:
Hence, one can safely claim that Jewish and Judaic hostility to Christianity is inherent and intrinsic and transcends all Christian pogroms, including the holocaust.
But I discovered that even 2000 years later, many Jews are not willing to forgive Jesus and still relating rather gleefully And vengefully to his “execution.” (to be honest, we Muslims don’t believe in the crucifixion story altogether) .
A few years ago, settler youngsters near Hebron chased a number of totally innocuous Christian Peace activists, hurling stones at them and telling them “we killed your God, you Nazis”!!
Unbiased observers have to ask: What could the IPMN possibly hope to gain by linking an article of this kind? What is their thinking?
That sad truth is that there is something fundamentally flawed at work here. The sad truth is that even the most minimal standards of decency and integrity would prompt some Presbyterian somewhere to say “Enough.” Not because this unremitting hostility “isn’t positive”; not because it is “unhelpful”; not because it might “offend”; not because Presbyterian relationships with the Jewish community might “suffer”. But because it is objectively detestable.